Clambering over giant landslides in the middle of nowhere in Sichuan Province, carrying aid to quake victims, is not what Frank Dunne came to China to do.The beefy, middle-aged salesman from Virginia actually had an even more exotic plan – making apple jam in Tibet. But that was put on hold because Chinese authorities have not allowed Mr. Dunne to go home since the Tibetan uprising in March.
So in his new adventure, he's organizing, sometimes leading, "extreme teams" that the US charity "Heart to Heart" has been sending to more remote mountain villages, schlepping in aid on their backs when the roads are blocked.
His destination last Tuesday was Long Zhu, a scattering of houses across forested hillsides now scarred by rock slides, that he had visited 10 days earlier as the head of the first civilian relief team to reach the 800 inhabitants.
"If not for the earthquake," he says, "I would probably be somewhere else learning Chinese, which is what I ought to be doing. But this gives me a nice, noble reason not to study."
"The place captured my heart because it's just paradise," he explained, "except that at the moment nobody has a house to live in or a dry bed to sleep in."
Getting there would not be easy and might be dangerous. Dunne made the nine members of his team sign release forms and take a group ID photo "in case we get buried under a landslide" provoked by one of the numerous aftershocks that still rattle the region. The latest major aftershock, which struck Thursday, had a magnitude of 5.3.
The village's inaccessibility turned out to be only one of the problems. Trying to get a better grip on the multiplicity of aid efforts, which range from Chinese soldiers and citizen-volunteers to foreign medical teams and private nongovernmental organizations, Chinese officials have begun preventing unofficial distribution of goods not authorized by the government.
At the first police roadblock, at a highway tollbooth, Dunne was unflappable. He simply walked to the head of the line of backed-up cars with a folder of documents under his arm and approached a policeman politely. His three-vehicle convoy was waved through.
"Amazing what a file folder and a name tag will do," he said with a smile.
Determination and a four-wheel-drive
An hour or so later, after a jolting drive into the mountains past badly damaged villages dotted with makeshift tents, he adopted a more determined attitude. Pulled over by a soldier because of his foreign face, and risking getting separated from the two front cars in the convoy driven by Chinese, he made an executive decision.
He was unable to explain what he was doing (he should have taken those language classes), so he simply slammed his secondhand Isuzu jeep into reverse, turned hard, and roared up the road after his team. "We've got to catch up with the others," he called out in English. "If you want me, come chase me."
It turned out to be a fruitless gambit; a little farther on, the road was more securely blocked by more soldiers who were adamant that foreigners could go no farther.
Dunne knew another way in to Long Zhu though, and after a three-hour detour lurching into the mountains along dirt tracks through one flattened village after another, he reached the last obstacle before the road became completely impassable – a fast-flowing stream. Whooping with excitement he ploughed his four-wheel-drive through the water, climbed up the steep bank, and came to a halt at a house-sized boulder that completely blocked his path.
From there it would be a tough 30-minute climb up and down a hill and through two massive landslides that had piled huge rocks across the narrow valley.
As he unloaded the food, tents, personal hygiene products and medicine he had brought, and that he and fellow volunteers would carry on by hand, Dunne was thinking not only of the people who would receive it, but also of those who had given it and wanted to know where it had gone.
He had one photo taken of himself holding a box of bread, with the baker's name prominently displayed; another showed him in an "Operation Blessing" T-shirt, in a nod to the help that Pat Robertson has given "Heart to Heart"; in a third picture, he was heaving a tent paid for by the American Chamber of Commerce and labeled as such.
"Pictures are important," he explained. "They keep supporters smiling and giving. This is going to be a long effort, and we don't want them tiring easily."
A 30-minute sweaty scramble later, villagers from Long Zhu (meaning "Dragon Bamboo") appeared to help carry the supplies. They greeted Dunne warmly, clasping his hand. "I'm really touched by the way they remembered us and the smiles on their faces," he said. "We seem to be welcome."
A spirit of adventure
The gathering of villagers at the group of tents that now constitutes Long Zhu's center is a long way from Virginia Beach, where Dunne spent much of his life selling computer software, home improvement supplies, and wastewater treatment systems.
He first came to China in 1995, when his wife saw an advertisement seeking teachers here. "She said, 'We could do that,' " Dunne recalls, and he agreed.
"The travel and adventure spirit was already alive and well in me," he adds. "I was just waiting for her to get on board."
After 3-1/2 years in the northeastern province of Jilin, a spell back in the United States, and the time it took him to set up an English school in Yunnan, Dunne and his wife, with their three children, won official permission to become the first foreigners to live in Batang, a small town on the high Tibetan plateau, at the border between Sichuan and the Tibet Autonomous Region.
"We hadn't a clue what we were going to do there," he laughs, "but it was breathtakingly beautiful and the cleanest place I had ever seen. "And we knew we wanted to do something to promote the idea that free enterprise is a good idea" to Tibetans in a place where ethnic Han Chinese dominate commerce, he explains.
Eventually he settled on a project to use the region's plentiful apples – descended from trees planted a century ago by missionaries – that now mostly feed yaks or rot on the trees for lack of marketing savvy among Tibetans who live in Batang.
A community kitchen making preserves for sale to the booming expatriate community in China, he hopes, could be a seedbed for other small businesses. "At the moment the sharpest Tibetans go away to college and never come back," he explains. "If we can make it fun and exciting and profitable enough to stay in town ... we might help stave off some of the brain drain. I'm still not sure it's going to work," he adds, but I'm willing to invest a few years to see."
It has taken two years just to make the right connections, choose the right project, and earn local people's trust, Dunne says, in a part of the world where trust even among neighbors is in short supply.
"To bring a community together, to see the transforming power of free enterprise, that would be beautiful if it could work," he says. "I just like the idea of seeing people's lives transformed for the better."
Dunne does not expect to be allowed back home until after the Olympic Games, and he says he has lost this year's production cycle, but he is prepared to wait.
"What I am trying to do may be a bit bizarre," he acknowledges, "and it's still a little idealistic, but it's fun and it's challenging, and it's a lot more rewarding than the next software deal."
• For more information on Heart to Heart, go to: www.hearttoheart.org. Frank Dunne's NGO, which runs the apple-jam project is at: REN Group, PO Box 65531 Virginia Beach, Va. 23467